5 Tips for Effective Icon Design

An effective digital icon should be beautiful, iconic, and meaningful. Here are 5 tips on how to create memorable and functional icons.

1. Implement the Main Characteristics of the Object

One of the most important aspects of icon design is to create an icon that is immediately recognizable. Whether it is meant to represent a function or an object, what it is trying to portray must be identifiable at a glance or the purpose of the icon is defeated. An icon must, of course, be ‘iconic’ of the metaphor it represents. Drawing an icon means to draw the most typical characteristics of an object so that it can capture the icon’s action or represent the concept and nuance.
For example, there are plenty of cylindrical objects with pointy tips besides pencils such as pens, markers, nails and at smaller sizes they might be indistinguishable, but only a pencil has a prism-shaped body with an eraser attached by a bright white metal ring. When these characteristics are reflected in an icon, it becomes ‘iconic’.

2. Maintain a Consistent Light Source

One particularly useful tip when designing multiple icons for a pack is to provide consistency between them not only in style but also in the details such as the light source. While usually a secondary thought, any mismatch of one icon in the pack could seriously affect the overall quality of the icons, especially if the icons are three dimensional.

3. Consider Cultural Differences

it’s important to remember that cultural differences plays a crucial part in the recognition of everyday items. It is always necessary to take into account the conditions in which your icon is going to be used. Ethnic norms, cultural traditions, local practices and gestures can differ radically from country to country. For an Icon, it is wise to use universal imagery that people easily recognize. Avoid focusing on a secondary aspect of an element.

For example, for a mail icon, a rural mailbox would be less recognizable than a postage stamp.

4. Use Vector Format

Icons are often used in a range of sizes, therefore it is a good idea to make the most of the scaleable nature of vector graphics to create a great looking design that can be used for multiple purposes. What’s more, with vector software packages such as Adobe Illustrator, every shape, gradient and stroke that makes up the icon can be tweaked and changed at any point, unlike a pixel based design that needs redrawing when changes are made.

5. Design Icons in both Large and small Format

Icon designers need to accommodate different sizes into their icon creations. Larger icons mean more detail, which means a richer GUI experience as well as removing a lot of restrictions an icon maker has placed upon him to make an image legible. Unfortunately, throwing out those restrictions means that a lot of icons that look quite crisp at full size might end up being muddy at 32×32 pixels and below! It’s a two-edged sword, designers should be prepared to accept casualties unless they produce different scale versions for the same icon they designed.

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